WHY I SMILE AT CHILDREN or ageism is alive and well.


I am ‘gutted’ as my grandson would say. For the second time in a month I turn up at the Bank without the necessary documentation that I had prepared carefully on the kitchen table.

When I arrived back home I burst into tears. Not because of the event but because of the thought of what the bank manager and staff would think of me. I am used to these lapses and am learning how to minimising them. I remember how my now deceased friend panicked in these circumstances and on the whole I manage them with serenity. At nearly 82 I have been coping reasonably well with the decline of certain faculties. But a recent experience made me feel worthless.
At a conference coffee break, a recently retired academic knowing that I am a U3A (University of the Third Age)  member announced that she had joined the organisation. She proceeded to describe in the most vicious ageist terms the behaviour of the members of her group. I could not believe my ears when she ascribed mockingly to each one of them the most ageist, prejudiced characteristics that I have come across in my 20 years of being interested in the representation of old women.

It left me speechless trying to understand what was going on and the meaning of this diatribe.

The episode did make a mark on me. If an old woman academic could perceive us old women in this way, talk about us in this way what do other people think when they see my white hair, my sometimes unsteady gait, my forgetfulness?

Maybe that is why, in the tube, in the street I smile at little children who look at me with interest.


THE TERRIBLE 92 – part 2

Advice to myself and carers

There is no fooling ma tante Salma, her senses are all there: with her eagle eyes she will notice any minor change you dare make in her surrounding, any change of expression in your face. Her nose will smell the cucumber being cut in the room next door or the tiniest drop of sweat you may harbour. And I swear she must have a 7th sense that allows her to guess people’s thoughts and their next move within a centimetre of precision.
Her memory is all there and my ears are going to explode with tales of money, success, status, past splendour: les soirees, les brilliants et les toilettes (the evening parties, diamonds and chic clothes) often repeated again and again…
And now what? With all her money, she is pacing round and round in her room and in her head, worrying about the next pipi. Worrying about millions of minor problems, not being able to abdicate her authority on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren…after all I have done for them
She lives in anticipation of what will happen in the next days with great anxiety.
Are these common features of old age? Or is it the result of living in exile? Past traumas not digested?

After my three weeks’ stint caring for Salma, I made myself some observations about old age .
It is very important to explain to anxious older people when and how things will happen, even if it is not what they want, rather than being vague and letting them build scenarios in their head
We must not think that age diminishes the intellect or the senses and we must treat old people as normal adults
Do not contradict old people, they usually know best but sometimes when they don’t, let it pass, or you may get a tantrum, it is not worth it
It is vital not to forget who the person is and recognise all what they have achieved in their life when they are still alive, not only at their funerals
Old people still need touch, kisses, love and little gifts of the things they like

Reminders for myself:
Do your pelvic floor exercise on the hour every hour
Notice any obsessions that may develop, acknowledge them and try to move on
Ask for help and accept help graciously, don’t forget to say thank you
Do not expect people to communicate with you if I you do not put your hearing aid
Make sure you have a non-judgmental friend or two to whom you can lash out all your woes without being contradicted
What money you have, USE IT! for your comfort and amusement, what are you waiting for?

Someone should devise a course on growing old that is not only about how to eat well, how to stay active and warm, but about the behaviours we can develop, how to deal with psychological changes. The usual response from the near and dear is : ah! she needs antidepressant”, donnez lui un calmant…

My Aunt Salma or The Terrible 92s

I was hoping that this blog would permit some of my friends to contribute to our experiences of ageing. Finally a friend (aged 66) who was asked to look after an aunt for a month’s holiday sent me the following:

My Aunt Salma
My aunt Salma left her home town of Aleppo aged 22 to marry an old millionaire from Cairo, they then settled in Milano. Now aged 92, and a widow for many moons, she has lost her past glory and beauty and is looking more and more like a bird of prey with a hooked nose, piercing cold eyes that notice everything and fingers that have morphed into bluish claws.

She rules the roost with an iron beak, maybe she always did? But now with her faculties in decline and being dependant on others for her basic needs, she has become a tyrant. Who will she pounce on next?

Are these genetic traits that I will inherit? Maybe I am already a tyrant and not aware of it!

Do we all grow old in a similar way? Do we share common characteristics? I wonder…:

The desperate need to be recognised for who we were and what we have achieved

The need for love given without asking

The need for touch and kisses

The frustration when things are not done the way we want them

The over active brain that cannot settle on the moment, because what is there anymore now? And it races 100 miles ahead, worrying and anticipating, rehashing bad deeds that people have done to us recently or in the past

The obsession with our bodies: where is it hurting today? how high is the blood pressure? Why am I peeing so much suddenly?

Lashing out at carers who are not following the proper routine on how to apply the Nivea cream, the order in which to put on garments

Lashing out at family members who do not care to phone or visit regularly or say thank you for all what we have done for them

Blaming everyone else for everything that goes wrong, it is never our fault

Refusing to acknowledge our limitations and making everyone’s life miserable because we won’t use a wheel chair or a stick or pay for a taxi when we can afford hundreds of them

And I want this and I don’t want that or is it the other way around?

This is all very tiring ….

Nothing really that a good dose of Arsenic 200c cannot solve

“I write from a critical and feminist perspective” M. Holstein

“I write from a critical and feminist perspective , which means that I question, challenge, contest and resist the status quo ( Ray 1999) ” Martha Holstein

At long last a book, Women in Late Life  that fulfils my wish for a general feminist view of the experience of ageing. I have read so much about ageing, attended so many seminars and conferences and meetings since I retired 20 years ago.  Although I have absorbed some knowledge this has remained fragmented and in a way difficult to relate to personally. My work on feature films has been stimulating but has made me angry more often than enlightened.

Martha Holstein’s book fulfils my need of making sense of all this information and I have finally found a language that I identify with in this complex field.

I strongly  recommend this book to women who need to make sense of their ageing.


Do old women need role models?

The end of the year and into my 81st year. Time to take stock and reflect. There has been so much change around ageing issues since I started being interested in the representation of old women 20 years ago. At the time, 60+ was the age when women were considered old and the few academic papers published took this as the bench mark. I had to search hard to access information about ageing and attended seminars and conferences planned for social workers. I joined the Older Feminist Network, a campaigning organisation at the time, and Growing Old Disgracefully network. I started, with the support of the local authority, the U3A in the borough of Brent.

Now Ageing is being studied in all its aspects by Academia. There are dozens if not 100s of sites about ageing: from the International Longevity Centre to blogs written by individuals (I will include my own www.oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com. )

Today I would like to reflect on three items in the news.

From ageuk website:  Each winter, 1 older person dies needlessly every 7 minutes from the cold – that’s 200 deaths a day that could be prevented… Age UK estimates that 1.7 million older people in the UK can’t afford to heat their homes, and over a third (36%) of older people in the UK say they live mainly in one room to save money.

From the Guardian Comment is free 26th November 2014:   On Tuesday he (the Pope) addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg. Speaking of the need for Europe to be invigorated, he described the continent as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”, and went on to say it risked “slowly losing its own soul”…

The Independent Dec 2nd: Mary  Beard calls for a grey revolution: ‘Let’s reclaim the word old’. Speaking at Cheltenham Literary Festival, the classicist said reaching old age should be a source of pride and suggested Agatha Christie’s character Miss Marple as role model.

To me these three news items encapsulate what I find disturbing in the climate of denial that surrounds old age. The age uk information about the plight of old people who have no other voice is reported in the press on one day and disappears from view the next. As with the abuse in care homes, the extreme isolation of some old people that leads to mental decline, the social problems of old people do not feature in high visibility campaigns.  As mentioned in my previous blog, and argued by Jay Ginn, old frail people have no public voice. We do not want to know about the end game (Prof. Kirkwood’s term for the end of life). Old frail, disabled old people, are ‘other’.  We prefer to identify with the ‘still doing it’ campaigns: the positive living, growing old healthy, independent age, age and   culture, growing bolder and the myriad of other sites. But as shown by the 77 years old Pope sexism sticks closely to ageism. Ageing is a feminist issue but  in the feminist communities old women are hardly visible. The OFN (Older Feminist Network) and the OLN (Older Lesbian Network) have now been joined by another network (7 sisters network). They are networks of friends who get together for sharing experiences, hidden from view. I am not aware of any old  women groups who are campaigning for the rights of  the frail, abused and lonely. The only two workshops about ageism at the Feminism In London Conference did not consider the Crisis in Care.

This leads me to Mary Beard’s proposing Miss Marple as a role model.  Do  we old women need ‘role models’? I do not think so. What we need is high-profile people who would advertise the contribution that we make to society. Our diverse roles: volunteers in the Health Service and hospices, philosophers, music teachers, workers, painters and singers, peace campaigners, grandmothers, great grandmothers and many more .  At any meetings, demonstrations against war, against violence, against the savage cuts we are there white hair and all. We  are often the foundations of community groups, religious associations. The research produced  about our ageing society by the universities is often inaccessible and does not permeate the general public’s consciousness.  What we need is for feminist writers to explore and close the gap between the  60+ healthy old and the old who face the end game.  What we need is for the young old to fight for the old who are unable to make themselves heard. For the old who die alone because of the cold weather. What we need is creative thinking and a way to combat the false choice given to old people in need of care. The false choice between living alone at home or being neglected and abused in care homes.






London Feminist Conference 2014

In spite of a very busy time I felt I  had to attend the Feminism in London conference. I managed it, arriving late and leaving early but the few hours spent in the exhilarating atmosphere made it worthwhile. To be in a crowd with so many women – specially the young ones  revived my feminist identity and commitment. I appreciated meeting old friends from past campaigns and the art stimulated my imagination.

However I felt a bit sad. In the multitude of stalls, old women were not represented. There were no workshops on the crisis in care or the plight of caseworkers, on ageing, ageism, on the relationship between disability and ageing. I do think that ageing is a feminist issue. To date, while academia and even the media are shining their spotlight on age, there is no public old feminist voice. But academic papers on the culture of old age does not seem to permeate the general consciousness and the media’s misrepresentation of old women in images and language attract no interest.  It is not that there was a lack of old activists at this conference.  Splashes of white hair were seen from the back of the lecture hall and among the workshop facilitators. Individuals were present but not the groups. What I mean is old women’s activism was invisible.

The OFN Older Feminist Network, the oldest group (1982) of old women to get together as feminist old women were not there. OWCH the Older Women Cohousing  group were not there.These women challenge the false choice between the isolation of growing old in one’s own home and the anonymous uninspiring retirement home. The new 70s sisters network were not there.  Only G.O.D. Growing Old Disgracefully advertised their existence with their banner on the wall of the stairwell.

I appreciated enormously Gail Dines plenary speech. In her words  ‘Feminism is not for each individual, it only works as a collective movement. We’re all in this together’.




I have on my blog analysed  a few scenes of John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night. See http://www.oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com 

In my research I discovered that there is a variety of feelings expressed  in women’s writings about age and identity.  Talking among a few friends a range of sentiments is also voiced although it seems to me that “Inside I feel 18” is the most common.  I would like to survey the responses of as many old women as possible to two questions and would appreciate the cooperation of the 70s sisters. The responses can be anonymous sent to me on rinaross@mac.com or posted as comments on this post.

How old do you feel you are?

What do you see when you look in the mirror. 

For example: Lynne Segal: “we are all ages and no age”

R.R. When I look in the mirror I see the features of my father in his old age. I have no access to my past selves. I only know how I feel now and I feel I have lived 80 years.

J.G. When I look in the mirror I see my uncle’s face… he said he looked like a turtle in old age


V.D. I don’t know how 73 is meant to feel. I am a bit surprised, still, that I have reached this age. I know I feel more alert and alive than I did in my teens and twenties and take more exercise. Being retired certainly suits me and I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy it – so far….

In the mirror I see an older woman and notice the lines and wonder how they were formed. Presumably many years of smoking can account for lots of the ones round my mouth and I don’t like the deep frown lines, but I am stuck with them and, in a way, lucky to have them as some people don’t reach this age. My hair is its natural colour, which is grey streaked with white – a look that some women go to extraordinary lengths to achieve! I see my father’s eyes with that high cholesteral ring round the pupils. but the whole face really looks more like my mother’s sister’s face.

A.B. I do not to be 18 again.  I was not in a good place at 18. I cannot put a number to my age. When I am asked I have to stop and think. I am 86. In the mirror I see that my lines have recently accumulated and I am not too pleased about it. I do not look at the mirror as often as I used to. I am shocked when I see that my hair have lost colour.

J.P. I am 71 and 1/2. I feel about 55 but alas, I have 80 year-old knees! . When I look in the mirror I see me at 10 years old (face hasn’t changed) except for the addition of a few wrinkles. I have earned them!!!!!

D.S.  71, my age. Definitely not ‘inside I feel 18’. I think the point is perhaps everyone knew how you were meant to feel at 18, so it’s easy to define. I don’t know what 71 is meant to feel like (and don’t care!) A bit like that t-shirt ‘this is what a feminist looks like’–’this is what an old feminist looks like’. But then I’ve never really worried what age I am, just what’s happening in my life. Would love to have the energy of 18 but am glad to have the experience of 71.

What do I see when I look in the mirror? Someone who is puzzled, worried, sad, and inevitably less attractive than in earlier years (not 18, I think my best years were early 30s for looks!) I don’t see any relatives directly, but bits from both my mother and father, with more bits that aren’t identifiable.

V.B Interesting, the feeling about yourself in old age. I’ve had the “inside I am still 18” comment, but I’m long past that…and I don’t remember feeling as interesting then as I do now at 74. I don’t feel the pain and insecurity that I felt at 18. At 74 I feel physically old which means I concentrate more on my general well being feelings…..I care for myself at this age in the sense of taking care of myself. There is a feeling of relaxation and peacefulness that I welcome. I feel my age but in a positive way….I feel ….ripe!

Looking in the mirror I see my mother and my father’s mother looking back at me in their old age. My cheeks are slipping downwards giving my face – in repose – a severe look, but there’s still a lively curiosity in the eyes, if a little critical. Plenty of wrinkles which signify age as well as the grey hair and thick eyebrows. My face says that I’m an old woman and that’s as it should be at 74.

R.L. 1- I am surprised whenever I think of how old I am – I feel no older than I felt at 55

2-  I see the wrinkles on the outside, but don’t feel them from the inside.

S.K. 1- When I am with young people – my students on the Folk Degree course, for instance – I feel particularly young , but that could be because they mostly don’t treat me as an elderly woman. When I’ve been doing Nana duty with my two young grandsons ( a labour of love – don’t get me wrong!) I begin to feel more like 72, which I am.
Getting up from the floor, with increasingly weak knees – or dancing energetically with them ( but for a much shorter time than they would like!) reminds me of my years, and reminds me that I wish she’d started a family when she ( and I) was younger! Mostly though, I feel 30-40- youthful, energetic, enthusiastic for my job and my many interests, but also with an awareness that I have a wisdom and insight that come with greater age than I feel. The usual shock and rude awakening when I catch my reflection in the mirror, or catch sight of my flabby , wrinkled ‘batwings’… Or when they ask me in the supermarket if I need help with my packing
Do I really look that feeble?!!!_

2- My mother. After a glass or two of wine, though – I see a reasonably attractive middle aged woman. But then my eyesight isn’t what it was…

S.T  1) Well, I honestly feel I’m 72. I feel totally different in so many ways from my teenage years. This may sound pompous, but surely by this stage you have a lifetime of experience and accumulated wisdom? When I was young, I had no self-confidence and didn’t know what to think about  people and how the world should be organised. Now I feel very confident in my views. This disadvantage is that I feel increasingly responsible for everything that happens and totally frustrated by my powerless to improve the world.
I am also nowadays very aware of the approaching end of life, which I could never envisage until after I retired, and this often makes me quite sad and depressed.

2) I see an old woman who looks miserable because she has a sagging jawline! Unless I’m smiling, in which case I see what I regard as my real self. Sometimes I simply see my mother.

A.R. how old do i feel I am? it depends of the day and what i am doing, when i ache everywhere and it is damp i feel 80, in a warm sumer day i can feel 22 , when i am in love i feel 18, when i play badmington and table tennis i feel 50 but if i have to run after a bus or walk uphill i feel 100. when i think of the future i feel very old and scared.

what do i see in the mirror? greying hair, wrinkles developing at an alarming rate, drooping face, often with a frown and a worried, bitter expression, facial hair growing, the freshness gone except when i smile. the trick is to smile all the time

A.S. 1. I feel 60 — I’ve got used to that, with my Freedom Pass and people getting up for me — but actually I’m nearly 70, I’ll be 68 this year. More worryingly, I have very few definite
1) Well, I honestly feel I’m 72. I feel totally different in so many ways from my teenage years. This may sound pompous, but surely by this stage you have a lifetime of experience and accumulated wisdom? When I was young, I had no self-confidence and didn’t know what to think about how people and how the world should be organised. Now I feel very confident in my views. This disadvantage is that I feel increasingly responsible for everything that happens and totally frustrated by my powerless to improve the world.

I am also nowadays very aware of the approaching end of life, which I could never envisage until after I retired, and this often makes me quite sad and depressed.

2) I see an old woman who looks miserable because she has a sagging jawline! Unless I’m smiling, in which case I see what I regard as my real self. Sometimes I simply see my mother.
memories of the 2000s ,whereas I can date certain years oft he 60s and 70s very precisely, and have at least a number of outstanding memories for the subsequent decades. The 21st century seems blurred, and I imagine this is partly because I don’t have children (no landmark family events, nor definite cutoff points on whom I am attracted to) and partly because I have a very old parent surviving at 103 (she goes on for ever and much of the pace of my own life has slowed to accommodate her needs). People do think I am or look younger, but I don’t !

My sister and I are developing characteristically similar faces, though when we were young we looked so different that we could win bets on getting people to guess our relationship to anyone in the room. She said something very observant to me when we hit our 60s: ‘Men think they can stay looking young by not eating anything, but they’re so silly because anyone can tell when we get older: women get these two little blobs at the corner of their chins, and men’s eyebrows start sticking out horizontally’.

I like the idea of a mirror fast actually, but find myself facing the world most days with a dab of pink over those two little blobs, and two black lines round my eyes.

From L.N : “For people in Alzheimer’s wards who have trouble remembering which room is theirs, if staff members try to help by taking a picture of the people and posting the photo on the doors of the rooms, the residents do not recognize themselves. Tellingly, however, people with Alzheimer’s do recognize themselves and select the correct room when the posted photograph shows them at the age of 30 (cf. Nolan et al. 2002).”

Nolan, Beth A. D., R. Mark Mathews, Gina Truesdell-Todd, and Amy VanDorp. 2002. “Evaluation of the Effect of Orientation Cues on Wayfinding in Persons with Dementia.” Alzheimer’s Care Quarterly 3(1): 46–49.